Achilles Was Lucky
We've both known Sara for almost twenty years. Her creative ability and her strength as a manager have landed her a job as editor in chief of a top women's magazine, but back in the days when she was just starting out, Sara was a features editor at a small magazine. That's how Alexandra, who was working as a freelance writer, met her. She got a call from Sara, inviting her to lunch.
"I've got an assignment for you," Sara told her. "It's a little different from what you usually write."
"You've got my attention."
"Do you remember the Iliad?"
"I read it in college. I loved it."
"Do you recall Achilles' one weakness?"
"What is this? A quiz show?"
"Go along with me on this."
"Okay, teacher. It was his heel."
"You get an A. Now, Alexandra, do you think most people have a weakness? No, let's call it a flaw."
"That's easy. Of course they do."
"What would you say yours is?"
"That's easy, too. I'm terrible about returning phone calls. Except when it's to an editor, of course."
Sara looked approving, as though Alexandra had earned herself another A.
"You've just proved my theory, and I think it will make a great piece. Here's my idea. I've always believed that everyone has more than one flaw. We usually pick one that's fairly mild, acknowledge it, and ignore the others. Lucky Achilles. Can you imagine how nice it would be to have only one weakness? Take me, for example. Except for work, I'm always late. I know it. I admit it to friends, and I actually try to work on it. I've improved a bit, but in the meantime my husband has pointed out that, while I'm owning up to that flaw, I have another one which is actually worse. I have a terrible temper, and I lose it over small things. I mean, really tiny things. I pat myself on the back because I've been on time and then blow up because someone else has beaten me to a parking space. So, as my husband puts it, I have a sweet little flaw that I acknowledge, and a big bad flaw that I don't. How about it, Alexandra? Are you willing to interview people and get them to tell you the sweet little flaw and then prod them into pulling out the big bad one?"
Alexandra was, and it produced a great article. One chef initially confessed to an unwillingness to share his Chinese food when eating out with friends, and then, asked to try again, admitted that he really hated having women in his kitchen. There was the woman copywriter who coyly revealed an aversion to sharing taxicabs and then, pressed, admitted that she was so tightfisted that she recycled gifts she didn't want and gave them to her staff at Christmas.
So what is the point of these Magic Words? They're a reminder that if we're like most people we've chosen to acknowledge a fairly harmless flaw and may be letting something far more serious get in the way of our success. Unlike Achilles, who knew the danger of his heel, we aren't always aware of the flaws that can do us harm. The chef who hated female kitchen staff had to acknowledge it to deal with it--certainly every woman who'd ever applied to him for a job had picked up on what he felt. And the copywriter's tightfisted giving was a common source of complaint in her office. Alexandra's long-ago article taught her that it pays to move past the innocent quirk--in herself and others--and look for the flaw that really causes problems.
Chew, Chew, Chew
"Chew your food," our mothers used to say. And even though they didn't insist that we chew each mouthful a hundred times before swallowing, they made it clear that gulping things down was not only bad manners, it was also bad for the digestion.
"Momilies," as author Michele Slung has labeled those homilies handed down by generations of moms, can be the bane of our lives or, as in this instance, they can remind us that the things our mothers used to say may contain valuable lessons.
Recently, Beth, an old friend of Howard's, had dinner with us. We were celebrating her first day on a new job, a job she had lusted for, but one that, she now confessed, might be too much for her to handle.
Beth's area was market research, and her new job at a big advertising agency placed her right below the president--the number-two slot at the agency. Right after she walked into her office that morning--before she even had time to find the ladies' room or visit the company cafeteria--the head of the agency plopped a three-hundred-page report on her desk.
As Beth stared at the thick portfolio, Dave tapped it with his hand and said, "This is very important, Beth. I want you to read it carefully, not once but twice, and then see me."
"What is it?"
"It's a report I commissioned from a management-consulting firm on how to completely restructure our
market-research department both here and overseas."
"I can't wait to read it," Beth said gamely.
"Good," Dave replied, "because that's just the start. I want you to be in charge of implementing the reorganization."
"All I could think of was the twelve labors of Hercules," Beth said to us, crumbling a piece of bread on the small plate. "Now I know how the poor guy felt when he was given the task of cleaning out the Augean stables. Reorganizing the entire agency! The task's immense. I'm new, I don't even know where to begin. Maybe I'm in over my head."
"This calls for the chew approach," said Alexandra, who signaled the waiter to bring another bottle of wine.
"What's that?" asked Beth.
"Maybe Howard should explain."
"I was always in a hurry as a kid," said Howard. "Nothing unusual there. Nor was it unusual that when I sat down to dinner I wasn't thinking of the food, I was thinking about finishing fast so that I could go outside and play ball with my friends. Naturally, my mother was always trying to slow me down: 'Chew your food!' One day she got so frustrated with the way she'd tell me to chew and all I'd do was gulp that she got up from the table, came over to me, and picked up my plate. I thought, 'Oh, great, now I can go out and play,' but she made me sit back down. She took my plate out to the kitchen and separated the food onto four salad plates. She put them in a line in front of me. 'One thing at a time, Howard. Chew!' It became a family joke," said Howard.
"Until you grew up," Alexandra interjected. "Eventually, Beth, Howard realized that it was good advice for a lot of things. Some projects are so big they're intimidating. Look at the whole picture and you'll freeze. So, whenever I get overwhelmed at the job, Howard always says, 'Chew, Chew, Chew.' It reminds me that you can't gulp things down. Things get done one bite at a time."
We've both worked with many successful executives, and almost all of them had one trait in common. Smart? Of course. Hardworking? Obviously. Tough when they have to be? Natch. But the trait we're talking about is the ability to be on time.
When Howard was just starting out in publishing, he met Ned at a booksellers' convention. Ned was only five years older than Howard, but everyone could see he was going to go far. He had taken a small, failing firm and within three years had turned it around, making it one of the major companies dealing in mass-market paperbacks.
Ned and Howard became good friends, and though Howard never worked for him, Ned taught him an important business lesson. Ned was always on time.
"Whether it was meeting Ned for a drink or having lunch or dinner with him, I never got there ahead of him," Howard says. "He'd always be sitting there, his favorite drink, a Kir Royale, sitting in front of him. One day I asked him two questions: How do you always manage to be early? And why does it matter to you?
"Being early is easy," Ned said. "I keep my watch set a half-hour fast. I've been doing it since college." Howard thought about that, and though he didn't say anything
to Ned, he realized that idea wouldn't work for him. "It wouldn't be long before I'd begin to automatically subtract that half-hour. The way I'd see it, my watch was hoarding a little extra time for me, and pretty soon I'd start taking it."
So Howard moved on to "Why?"
"I like to be early because it allows me time to think of what I'd like to talk about. It's also nice to be able to sit here and enjoy my drink and think about how my day has gone.
"I've always called it 'Wrist Power,' " Ned continued. "Being on time is really using time well. Making it work for you. People who arrive late have the mistaken idea that they're making every minute count. They're not. People who show up late for meetings have already given me the edge. They start out apologizing, they're feeling harried because they meant to be just a little bit late and then a truck backed out of an alley and blocked their cab. So, instead of spending the time en route to the meeting thinking about what they want to say, they're thinking about the truck, or about the stoplight. Meanwhile, I'm here, enjoying a drink, thinking about what I want to accomplish in the meeting. I'm not scurrying around distracted by traffic and wondering how late I'm going to be. I'm already here."
Howard confesses that this point of view was new to him. It was also one he found very persuasive. He had left the office at the last possible minute, been held up by the very truck Ned had mentioned, and arrived at the restaurant apologetic and frazzled. Those extra minutes he'd put in at the office had been far fewer than the ones he'd wasted fretting about the slow taxi ride.
"An important part of my dedication to 'Wrist Power' is also courtesy," Ned added. "People who are chronically late are discounting the value of your time. Or they want to be the center of attention, and it's easier to achieve that when they make a grand--and late--entrance. I start meetings on time and I end them that way. Unless my car blows up along the way, I'm at the airport early enough to sit and read the paper before boarding. There's enough stress that we can't avoid. I'm not perfect, far from it, but the one thing I know I can control is being on time."
Although neither of us set our watches ahead a half-hour, we both subscribe to "Wrist Power." Strategically, there is power in being there first, in being calm and prepared when the latecomer hurries in full of apologies for behavior that is every bit as rude as not saying "please" or "thank you." Effective managers may tolerate a flurry of lateness in someone else because they feel it gives them an advantage. Personally, they'll practice "Wrist Power," because lateness doesn't make you look important, it makes you look incompetent.
Howard and Alexandra came up with these Magic Words one afternoon after spying a mutual friend walking down the opposite side of the street. Marjorie had just gone back to work after a ten-year hiatus at home with her young family. When Howard and Alexandra spotted her striding up Madison Avenue, she was wearing a thigh-high skirt, chunky wedge-heeled shoes, and a tight short-sleeved sweater that rode up as she walked, exposing an inch or more of midriff.
"I thought you said that Marjorie had gotten a job with a law firm," said Howard, staring at Marjorie's outfit.
"She has," said Alexandra. "Want to bet she won't stay there long?"
Howard refused the bet, but Alexandra was unable to resist telling him why she'd been willing to put down ten dollars on the likelihood that Marjorie was in line for a new career.
"She's playing 'Let's Pretend,' " Alexandra explained. "I think she already knows she doesn't want to work in that law office. She's dressing for the job she wishes she had, not for the one she's got. Here's my bet--contracts for a theatrical agent."
Alexandra was a little off. When Howard ran into Marjorie six months later, she was working as counsel for a large record company. The encounter with Marjorie got Howard and Alexandra thinking about how dress can affect your career. It also made Alexandra a proponent of what she calls the Cary Grant Approach, named for the actor who was a synonym for sophistication and who once confided, "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be, and I finally became that person."
This was the tactic adopted by a young woman Alexandra knew who worked as a secretary for a fashion magazine. Deborah's dream was to be a fashion editor, and long before she had the job, she had the image. Because she was young, she wisely shunned the stark, sophisticated perfection of a Diana Vreeland, and instead, in her clothes and hairstyle, mirrored the fashion fads of people her age who were making news in the worlds of art, music, and drama. Deborah was never outlandish, but she was always different and completely original. Gradually, senior editors began seeking her advice on styles that were percolating up from the underground. One day, one of the editors asked that Deborah be made her assistant. There is no question in anyone's mind that Deborah will eventually take the step up to editor. To look at her, you'd think she was already there.
Howard saw the same thing happen with a young mail-room clerk at his publishing house. Shunning the casual clothes worn by other gofers, James wore tweeds and loafers and--Howard says this is what first caught his attention--carried a rolled-up copy of a small literary magazine in his jacket pocket. Because James's dress was unusual for his job, people noticed him and treated him differently from the other clerks. The protruding magazine started conversations, and James's earnest desire to have a role in the world of literature made several editors adopt him as a protege. Although editorially James is on the bottom rung, dealing with the unsolicited manuscripts known as the slush pile, he got the part he dressed for. Howard says that if he shows up in scrubs everyone will know that James has decided to switch to medicine.
Dressing the part is what Alexandra calls "Let's Pretend." Sometimes it's a way of convincing other people you're right for the role. But sometimes it's a way of trying on a new profession. When a photographer we know was thinking of giving up the unsettled life of the freelancer for law school, a lawyer friend told her that first she should play "Let's Pretend." "Buy a silk blouse and a tailored suit and wear them for a week. If you can't stand the outfit," he warned her, "I promise you you'll hate the job."
Excerpted from Magic Words at Work by Howard Kaminsky and Alexandra Penney. Copyright © 2004 by Howard Kaminsky and Alexandra Penney. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.